Like a lot of Division I football players, Ricky Ali'ifua came out of high school pretty used to being one of the biggest players. But between coming off his church mission and going up against offensive linemen tipping the scales at more than 300 pounds, that has changed a bit.
Actually, it's a change that Ali'ifua embraces - having to be the crafty rusher rather than just a physically overpowering one.
"It's very interesting to go against guys who weigh a lot more, and it's fun to learn how to expose them," Ali'ifua said. "If I can use me hands well, I can usually get them off of me. It's all about getting off the ball quick, creating separation, and that's the only way I can have success."
For a freshman, Ali'ifua has been quite successful.
Seeing at least a few snaps in every game, he's gotten 19 tackles this year, 2.5 TFL, a sack and has even broken up a pass. His first career sack came this past weekend against New Mexico, when Ali'ifua got plenty of reps with Utah State's four-man front.
"Ricky Ali'ifua really stood out," Matt Wells said. "I thought he had one of his better games."
The key, Ali'ifua said, is knowing when to listen. He's been eager to hear from vets such as A.J. Pataiali'i and Connor Williams, taking note of their tips on his technique. The 21-year-old is more attentive than the typical freshman, and it's paid off.
Would you believe he only played two years of organized football before coming to Utah State?
"I really just learned in high school," he said. "That's just been the big thing: paying attention to the older guys and learn the technique."
It might be especially impressive considering Utah State has moved Ali'ifua up and down the line. He's playing tackle now again, but he also had a lot of snaps at end when Williams was out.
He hasn't always had great games, he acknowledges. Taking losses to BYU and Boise State were tough to swallow. Ali'ifua said it helped inspire the defensive line to get churning when they blew up the No. 2 rushing offense in the country in Albuquerque.
"We took it upon ourselves that there's more we can do," he said. "We had a different mindset. We had to be more vicious and make sure we've done everything we could to win that game. It was a big confidence booster for us."
It's similarly comforting for Utah State to know they'll have three more years with Ali'ifua on the line, not to mention his brother on the way as a recruit.
Kyle Goonkgoon@sltrib.comTwitter: @kylegoon